Reflections

I Brake for Brown Highway Signs (And Other Road Trip Thoughts)

Posted on: February 3rd, 2012 by David Garber 1 Comment

 

Although I formally count train travel as my favorite mode of long-distance transportation (something about gliding through countryside and cities, admiring the backs of buildings and never getting stuck in traffic), my far more prevalent travel mode is the road trip.

No boarding calls to miss. No need for real luggage (a laundry basket or bundle of reusable grocery bags will do). The chance to split travel costs with friends. Frantic fast food roulette (will the next exit have better options??). That backseat jumble of pillows, outstretched legs, and stray french fries. Beef jerky. Nighttime belting of 80s and 90s classics as a caffeine substitute during exit-less and therefore often creepy and winding stretches. And the total (read: schedule-dependent) freedom to detour and explore.


Something about these brown signs always draws me in. (Photo: Jun Belen)

The beauty of road trips is that they aren't just about the destination. Those stops at seedy, half-lit gas stations tend to make up roughly/statistically 50 percent of the stories and memories of the trip itself. Or so it seems.

And if I'm in the driver's seat (with no apologies to history-hating and/or sleeping passengers), some exploration is hard to escape. I'm a sucker for brown highway signs - you know, the ones advertising so-and-so's birthplace and this-or-that historic district, for ramshackle and seemingly abandoned buildings (keyword: seemingly; see: Memorial Day 2011 road trip to the beach with pit stop at awesomely-ruined-looking house that, upon further inspection, appeared to be an active meth lab), and any food or pitstop option that has more of an air of local-ness about it than just another Chick-fil-A (*ducks*).


Gotta stop for the local (and good for you, too!) stuff. (Photo: Flickr user futurowoman)

A few weeks ago I took such a trip down to Lowgap, North Carolina with a car-full of friends. If you've ever been, you'll remember it as the place with more farm fields and random highway-side patches of English Boxwoods than, anecdotally and without any real information, anywhere else in the country. At one point during the trip we found ourselves on a riverside road in Lexington, Virginia, in search of a gas station - one of those "gas arrow is already below E" moments where everyone's got their eyes peeled.

We were rolling along when all of a sudden we whooshed past (then quickly circled back for a better look) a little silver-colored building shaped like a coffee pot - which turned out to be an actual quasi-historic roadside attraction that we had absolutely no intention of seeing... but saw. And googled. And now love.


The abandoned ones. They beckon me. (Photo: Flickr user kristina k. dymond)

Sometimes it feels like historic preservation is this very formal and staid task. And, sometimes, it is. We talk about it as a responsibility, which it certainly is. But our interest and engagement with old and historic places can be as casual as slowing down to admire a building shaped like a pot. Or running screaming from a creepy old house. Or easing the gas pedal while passing through an old main street. Our appreciation and interaction with these places, whether accidental, intentional, planned, or spontaneous, is one of the most crucial elements of their eventual memory and sustainability.

I think I'll probably keep braking for brown highway signs. And sneaking up to scary houses for a closer look. And detouring and exploring and finding and remembering. Join me?

David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Although he tends to prefer a more mellow playlist, he can say only somewhat ashamedly that, thanks to his latest female-heavy road trip, he now knows most of the lyrics to Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." At final edit, it appears the song will be stuck in his head for the remainder of the workday.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Preservation Resolutions, Part Deux: Your Turn to Talk

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

 

A few weeks ago I let slip my preservation resolutions for 2012. It was a great list (if I do say so myself), a challenging list, and well, one that isn't really all that measurable or specific. But it's out there. I figure the more people know about it the more I'll march to success.

Now it's your turn. Earlier this month Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sent out a message to members asking them to share their preservation resolutions. And you delivered.


Just a few of your specific resolutions... (Image: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Since there were so many I decided to pull out four common themes. These themes reflect the commitment of the preservation community to work to save historic places - not only in a professional capacity also as a passion in your personal lives.

So here goes. In 2012, you vow to...

  • Take direct action: Many of you wrote that you are looking to take direct action to save a place or building that matters to you. Sometimes it is a 1920s craftsman bungalow, or a historic barn, a school, or a historic ship. Others wish to advocate for the cause based on their love of architecture or the role preservation plays in job creation and sustainability.
  • Participate in preservation in a hands-on way: This year you vow to refurbish floorboards, rehabilitate your wood windows, do a structural assessment on a 1850's barn, save a one-room school house. You vow to dig in and go to ground, reaching out to touch the tactile, the grooves of the past in the places and spaces of days long gone (but not forgotten) - spaces waiting to add many more years to their story.
  • Remember the War of 1812, 200 years later:  This is the resolution that I love. Before ending up embracing the history of early America I found myself fascinated by the reign of Napoleon. From his rise, to the tale of British impressment of Americans on the high seas, I was sucked in to what some call the second American Revolution. Many of you look to this commemoration as a way to identify and embrace history in your backyard.
  • Entering the preservation field fully as a professional:  Many of you are students and everyday learners. This is your year to look at the field more broadly, to write theses, intern, and persist in looking for a job in a field that you love. More importantly, many of you vow to keep on learning, interpreting, and advancing preservation in the world around you. Each and every one of you expressed the desire to learn more about preservation, from the “ABC's” to understanding the latest research in infill design and geo-thermal energy production in historic districts.

Above all else, each one of you exhibited a determination and recognition of your role in sustaining the preservation ethic. You look at preservation and embrace its ability to make life better in a real, tangible, economic way, and through its impact on the human condition. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

Have something to add? Sound off below!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Preservation in Place: This is the House that Jack Built

Posted on: January 11th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 2 Comments

 

I woke up this morning with this poem in my head. I haven’t thought about it years, and am not entirely sure what prompted my mind to dredge it up from my childhood. But, as always, Mother Goose has a lesson in mind.

This is the house that Jack built...

This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt,
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The poem starts with a single idea: this is the house that Jack built. A rational expectation is that we’ll learn about Jack’s home - the timbers, the frame, the windows. Instead we are treated to a narrative of how the house is interlinked with individuals and events outside of the four walls.


This Is the House That Jack Built - illustrated book cover from 1878.

Those of us that love history know that preservation is about the broader context, both historically speaking but also in terms of present impact. How can preserving one building be an economic and worthwhile benefit to its neighborhood, town, city, state, and so on? Turns out there's a ripple effect. Like in the poem, each building has a ripple effect, encouraging growth, diversity, and investment.

The poem is simple, but somehow articulating this message to non-preservationists (or those who aren't sure where they stand) is often the greater challenge.

Over the holiday I had a conversation with an acquaintance about my job and why I love writing about history and the past. I was asked the inevitable question: what does any of this have to do with today? So I talked to him about neighborhood initiatives, local entrepreneurship, and community character, and wasn’t at all surprised when he said that he never thought of preservation from that angle.

It is not that the history “within these walls” is not important. It is not that significance and meaning don't play a key role in why we preserve. Rather, these are just the jumping off point to having these places continue to play an active and meaningful role in the community.

This is the man who trained in trade,
Who built the windows that were remade,
That brought the visitors to the block,
And the stores in which people could shop,
Creating a community strong as rock,
Beyond four walls that no one forgot,
Amidst the people whose lives it wrought,
This is the house that preservation built.

Is there a place in your community that had this ripple effect? Have you successfully changed minds about the importance and role that preservation can play in economic sustainability and neighborhood vitality?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Preservation Resolutions 2012 (Or, 2011 Bites the Dust)

Posted on: December 28th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

 

(Photo: Flickr user Carbonated)

I know it's a bit cliché to wax poetic about the passage of time, but 2011 has been one of those years that swung from January to December in a blink of an eye. One moment I'm looking eagerly to all that lies ahead in 2011, the next we are four days away from ringing in 2012.

So let's take a look back. The year has been filled with many changes, both personally and professionally. Through Buffalo Unscripted we've learned about how one city embraces preservation in its daily life, and we've seen preservation victories across the country with two in my home state of Virginia: Wilderness Battlefield and Fort Monroe.

It's also been another year where I've had the privilege to write here on the PreservationNation blog about subjects that I’m passionate about. My favorite post of the year? It's a toss-up between one I wrote a few weeks back about the materiality of preservation and a look at how preservation was portrayed on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

After looking back at my resolution post from last year, I realized that I accomplished all three, though not in the way I envisioned when I wrote them.

  • Attend an off-the-beaten track exhibition every month. Sure, it wasn’t every month, but I did succeed in seeing a few inspirational displays of culture and history. These included seeing a poetry slam inspired by historical art, a month long culture fest on India at the Kennedy Center in DC, impressive architectural displays of Buffalo, NY and wandering around Staunton, VA's main street on my birthday.
  • “Get my hands dirty” with an on the ground preservation project. Once again I did this in my own fashion. As an attendee of Preservation Leadership Training in Virginia I was able to catch a glimpse of what one of these projects look like as we worked in teams to re-imagine Woodlawn Plantation for the 21st century.
  • Continue to strive toward a sustainable lifestyle. A carryover from my 2009 resolution, I made some significant changes when I moved to a walkable neighborhood in August, while continuing to make my family and friends more conscious of the world in which they live.

So what about 2012?

Preservation is, at its root, a practice of the soul. Those of us who work or even just dabble in the practice believe in its ability to better lives in a real and visceral way. Preservation gives us pride in our community, our families, and our homes.

That’s why I see a year filled with opportunity - one where we take a hard look at our challenges and work to find new ways of making an impact, changing minds, and reaching out.

It is also a year of looking change straight in the eye, seeing where new roads can take us, and looking for the small acts where I can make a difference. Because, to quote/change/mangle a popular holiday movie - ”Preservation, actually is all around.”

So my 2012 Preservation Resolution is to not back down, to be inventive, to be engaged, and to look outside every box to find workable solutions in a challenging environment. For 2012 I vow to make connections and find tools that will allow preservationists to be all that they can be - to turn opportunity into something tangible.

And so, as the clock tick-tick-ticks away into 2012, it is now your turn: What are your preservation resolutions?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Living in a Walkable Neighborhood. Testify!

Posted on: December 7th, 2011 by Priya Chhaya 5 Comments

 

(Photo: Flickr user Cougar-Studio)

A few months ago I moved from a 17 to a 92. That isn’t the probability of my going to the gym every day, or the ratio of museum trips to preservation-related movies watched. It’s my neighborhood walk score.

It wasn’t an entirely unexpected change, or even an unconscious decision. After talking the talk for over five years, this was an opportunity for me to (no pun intended) walk the walk. Also unsurprising is that I love it.

While living further out from the city, I did try to be sustainable - I would drive my car to a commuter lot to travel via carpool (the slug line, if anyone is familiar with it), or drive to the Metro (Washington, DC’s subway system). If I could, I would make sure to time all my shopping and socializing in the same area, so that once I parked I limited my driving time. And as much as I could control it I shopped local, and attempted to eat local.

But this - this is different. For five days of the week everything I need is steps away from my new home. I take public transportation 95% of the time, exercise, and get my hair cut without having to get into my car. There are restaurants galore - including my favorite socially-conscious coffee shop - and a few (semi-affordable) independent retail stores owned and operated by small business owners. Not to mention a branch of the public library system. Moving from a 17 to a 92 has made my life, in some ways, less complicated.

Last week I reflected a little on the materiality (or immateriality, rather) of historic preservation. In the post, I cited four elements that connect the physicality of preservation to the more ephemeral, meaningful pieces of what we do: Place-History-Memories-Character.

These four characteristics played heavily in my choice to live in my new neighborhood:

Place: This is my first home away from the place where I grew up with my parents. It was a big step for me, and I knew that when choosing the neighborhood it had to reflect what I wanted to be, where I wanted to spend my time, and a sense of place that reflected some of what I believed in.

History: The direct neighborhood in which I live is not historic in the usual sense of the word - although a large portion of the retail/foodie area was built in 1944. However it does lie adjacent to a National Register district that was once a part of the DC boundaries, and then developed by Defense Homes Corporation during World War II.

Memories: Having lived in the region already, I came to my new neighborhood with a visceral connection to it. My friends and I gather for monthly book clubs at my coffee shop, and I’ve celebrated birthdays at many of the restaurants.

Character: I think, above all else, this area has character. When leaving my apartment building I can run in one direction to see the amazing World War II area housing that still remains, and I am often immersed in green space that lines the sidewalks. While my building is of the 1970s variety, I can look outside my window and see the cityscape of DC arrayed in lights (including the Washington Monument). That feature alone is inspiring.

Going from a 17 to a 92 doesn’t mean I don’t miss my old haunts, my childhood parks/playgrounds, and favorite local restaurants that I still visit when I’m in the area. But I can say that it’s made me an even bigger proponent as a historic preservationist to protecting places that just like this for the future.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.